From Just Another Chelsea Youngster To Manuel Neuer’s Equal at 22, Thibaut Courtois Can Become The Best Ever

With a clear hierarchy having been established in European football due to globalisation, massive revenues and colossal financial disparities, the hold that the top clubs have over the rest is larger than ever. It’s a structure that is set to be reinforced even further by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, something which seeks to create equality in spending power but will do little more than secure the position of the biggest brands, and without the capacity to take financial risks or be boosted by high investment it will be even harder than it has been historically for anyone to break into this elite.

As their dominance has been established over the years (even prior to FFP) the biggest teams have looked to take advantage of their increasingly strong position. It was tough for smaller sides to keep their best players before, but now many of them can no longer afford to cling onto even their best young talent – and with enormous scouting networks being built by the elite this potential is spotted at incredibly young ages.

Inevitably, those with such a global reach have utilised this: leading to a mass migration of youth players from around the world into a select few academies. It’s led to a lot of accusations and criticisms of stockpiling towards them, potentially damaging the development of these young people in an environment where it’s already hard enough to get anywhere, but from their side it’s very simple. If you buy ten tickets instead of just one then you’re much more likely to win the lottery.

Perhaps the team who has received the most stick for this is Chelsea, who have amassed a hoard of talent which goes beyond the absurd. They loaned a total of 28 different players out to various European clubs last season, of which just two have played any kind of role in the first-team this season. One of those is Kurt Zouma, signed in January from AS Saint-Étienne and loaned back to them instantly, who has played a minimal 45 minutes of league football this campaign. The other one of the two, though, from Chelsea’s perspective at least, is beneficial enough to make up for everything spent on all these other players put together.

Courtois demonstrates his ability in the air under a high ball, using his tall frame to catch it comfortably.

Courtois demonstrates his ability in the air under a high ball, using his tall frame to catch it comfortably.

Thibaut Courtois arrived at Stamford Bridge as both the Goalkeeper of the Year and a title winner from the Belgian Pro League with K.R.C Genk in 2010/11 – their first league title since 2001/02. Interest had been surrounding him for a long time given his clear talent, especially since making his debut at the age of just 16 in 2009, but as so many young players have experienced there was simply no room for him in Chelsea’s first-team. With Petr Čech showing no signs of moving and him being loaned out instantly, you could be forgiven for having seen him as ‘just another promising youngster’ who wasn’t going to make it there due to a lack of opportunities.

Fast forward past three tremendous years in Spain however and, where he was once perhaps just another ticket in the lottery, Courtois now represents the jackpot after a quadruple rollover. He quickly established himself as the first-choice at Atlético Madrid in that time, going on to become a vital part of what was arguably the best back five in Europe. Winning four trophies (UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, Copa del Rey and La Liga) and being the recipient of the Zamora Trophy in two consecutive seasons is a good albeit brief indication of just how well he did.

So well, in fact, that it almost seemed like a no-brainer to replace Čech with him at the beginning of this season. Just to put it into context, this was a 22-year-old replacing a club legend, one of the best goalkeepers in Premier League history and arguably the best in the division at the time. That all speaks for itself. Despite playing no direct role in his development, bar the decision to loan him out and Christophe Lollichon (their goalkeeping coach) monitoring his progress, Chelsea’s stockpiling has rewarded them by having one of the two best goalkeepers in the world at their disposal. In their eyes that will be a resounding success.

The other of those two is, obviously, Manuel Neuer. Named as one of the final three for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, the German is seeking to become the first goalkeeper to win the award (including when it’s had its previous titles) since the great Lev Yashin in 1963. Yashin truly redefined the position, whilst some have called Neuer the representation of Rinus Michels’ – the inventor of Total Football – idea of playing an outfield player in goal to improve ball circulation coming to fruition. It takes something special and incredibly unique to be nominated for that award as a goalkeeper given their role, let alone win it.

For that reason, despite what he brings as a more orthodox goalkeeper as well, it’s entirely feasible to say that Neuer’s nomination for the Ballon d’Or last three is primarily down to his unique sweeping role helping him to stand out. Doing something ‘revolutionary’ (though he didn’t invent this role, as such, just taken it to a new level) whilst playing for Bayern Munich and especially winning the World Cup for Germany is bound to make him more noticeable than any other goalkeeper has been for a long time.

Manuel Neuer has adapted the ‘sweeper keeper’ role to a new extreme, with him pictured near the half-way line here.

Manuel Neuer has adapted the ‘sweeper keeper’ role to a new extreme, with him pictured near the half-way line here.

As a result of those factors, perhaps, for some there isn’t even a discussion about who the best goalkeeper in the world is. That, however, as the Player of the Year awards have done countless times over the years, is to unfairly disregard the quality of the best number ones who undergo their job in a more subtle but equally effective manner than those who are more stand-out. And of those, Courtois is indisputably the best.

The contrast in their styles may be massive, but in pure quality Neuer and Courtois are on the same page – and in fact there are actually similarities between the two in terms of the aura of authority and composure they provide. Where Neuer is the best at patrolling behind the backline and using his feet to great effect, Courtois commands control of his 18-yard box like no other in world football. Standing at 1.99 metres (6’6 ½) the Belgian is a giant even in goalkeeping terms, with extraordinary reach due to that as well as an unflappable temperament underneath a high ball. Nobody can catch a ball as easily and regularly as he does.

Being so aerially calm was incredibly useful when he was at Atlético who played a considerably deeper defensive block than the likes of Bayern Munich and Spurs (with Hugo Lloris playing the sweeper role as well for example, though to a lesser extreme). With there being less space to get between the backline and the goalkeeper, it was near impossible to stretch them with pace and runners in behind – leaving teams to resort to crosses as the main method of chance creation to try and cut through the compact shape they formed. This played into Courtois’ hands, literally, and with him consistently collecting the ball and relieving the defence the Spanish side were more than happy to allow crosses into the area.

Chelsea playing a higher line in comparison to Atlético has helped Courtois to demonstrate his other abilities more during his short time there so far too, with his tall frame, speed of footwork and brilliant anticipation being used in a greater number of instances now. His timing of when to rush out in one-on-ones is impeccable, and rather than overcommitting like so many goalkeepers do he’s almost always there to pounce at exactly the right moment. In these situations he practically forces strikers to take an extra touch, when they’d much rather have less time to think, and only then rushes out to narrow the angle.

Courtois times rushing off his line to perfection, not overcommitting, and makes himself big to narrow the angle for the opposition striker.

Courtois times rushing off his line to perfection, not overcommitting, and makes himself big to narrow the angle for the opposition striker.

There is a very strong element of danger (one which Courtois has almost entirely eradicated due to his quality) in both this and collecting crosses, as all goalkeepers can attest to, but him doing the traditional things perfectly is almost overshadowed by the risk which Neuer not only plays with but thrives on.

It’s that sense of risk, excitement and confidence, something that is reflected in Neuer’s personality, which makes the German so enjoyable and unique: you won’t see pictures of Courtois (or any other goalkeeper for that matter) standing near the half-way line every other week. But however impressive that may be it shouldn’t add so much to his perceived ability, because in actual quality the two have far less between them – if anything at all.

Like with Neuer, it’s hard to pick out any sort of flaw in the Belgian’s game. That’s if there even is one. Being so well-rounded and having accomplished so much at just 22, it’s hard to imagine him not surpassing Neuer to become the clear best sometime pretty soon. The German may be adjudged to be one of the top three footballers in the world right now, but perhaps he isn’t even definitely the best goalkeeper.

At his current trajectory there’s no limit to what Courtois can achieve. It might seem a little premature with so much of his career ahead of him, but his name may one day be comfortably mentioned in the same sentence as the likes of Lev Yashin, Dino Zoff and Gordon Banks as one of the best ever. And that isn’t how good he could become – rather how good he should become. Just don’t expect him and his style to be rewarded with a Ballon d’Or.